tv This Is America With Dennis Wholey PBS May 8, 2011 10:00am-10:30am EDT
>> mitchell reiss is the president of washington college in chester town, maryland. he is former director of the office of policy planning at the u.s. state department, and author of the book "negotiating with evil: when to talk with terrorists." congratulations on your book. welcome to the program. >> thank you very much. >> can we agree on a definition of terrorism? >> there are over 100 definitions of terrorism. one of the goals of this book is to explain that and not to add 101. what i did do was to use the phrase, when it was used by
governments, their depiction of their state adversaries. in part because that also showed the distance that the government had to travel in order to sit down and actually negotiate with these people. so it also prevented a pretty fruitless discussion of what is and what is not a terrorist. >> is it all about creating fear and kind of blackmailing the government? >> i think we can all agree on certain elements. i think it is violence used in pursuit of a larger political purpose of by a non-state actor. generally to incite fear and overreaction. often, almost always, in discriminant of the civilians, who were also killed along with the targeted government officials. but again, there are a variety of definitions, and people have different feelings about these groups. >> and you use an important
phrase here, non-state actors. so it is not a government against a government. >> that is right. >> these are smaller groups, i gather. >> that is exactly right. oftentimes they are supported by governments, but they do not have the status under international law. they are a different conceptual animal, and they occupy a different place under international law and in our imagination. >> and the horror of it just went through my mind. did 9/11 bring that home to the united states? i guess we had seen little bits of it here and there, but that really brought it home. >> absolutely. again, i think that for many americans, that is probably going to be the most significant political event in his or her life. >> wow, that is fascinating that you say that. elaborate on that a little bit. the most significant event in his or her life? >> as pearl harbor was for an earlier generation. i know that the students that i
teach at washington college, this was a visceral image in their young lives, and it is one that will carry with them forever. >> so it is not necessarily sending they think about every single day, but the offense has had such a dramatic impact on them. is that it? >> that is right. i think it has resurfaced from time to time whenever we read about terrorist events elsewhere in the world. we have that as part of our context to empathize with those victims. >> and now terrorism, al qaeda, they are synonymous as well in our minds here in the united states? >> i think al qaeda absolutely is terrorist group number one, but i think it is much broader than that. there are terror groups all over the world. most experts believe that terrorism trends are going in the wrong direction, from our perspective. there will be more terrorist groups in the future. >> that is kind of frightening, isn't it? because we never knew from the
suicide bombers and things like that. and then all of the sudden, nowadays, there will show up in countries all over the world. bombs and ied's. >> that is right. this form of terrorism was invented by the tamil tigers in a tree long cut and was copied by al qaeda. now it has been copied again across the world. >> what is the form? >> suicide bombers. both female and male suicide bombers, in the case of the tamil tigers. >> was present a bucshon target when he used the phrase "war on terror"? >> i think he was. because i think he was able to explain in a very clear way to the american people what the threat is. it also needs to be understood that it is a war that has different instruments. it is not a war that can always be fought by military means, although that clearly is an instrument that can be very effective. there are lots of different
tactics that we will need to adopt in this war, and it is going to be a war that will go on for decades. >> in addition to creating fear, do the terrorists have, you know, a clear-cut goals in mind when they embark on creating this fear? >> almost always. >> interesting. >> and the case studies that i leggett in the book, the terrorist groups had very specific goals. the what the government to reduce funding or stop doing something, and they're using violence in order to promote that. >> there are a couple of phrases, before we take a break, i want to ask you about. the terrorist threat matrix -- that is a phrase that i never -- and pick it up out of my reading of the book. what does that mean, the terror threat matrix? >> it is a document that the government produces every morning for senior officials. it collects all the terrorist threats against the united states, our friends and allies,
anyone in the world over the last 24 hours. >> you have served in the state department. is that list extensive? what's upsetting lake, it is extensive. >> it is? so keep people in the state in the defense department and the administration are reading this on a daily basis? >> it is certainly provided to them on a daily basis. the difficulty is deriving operational policies from this mass of itemized threats. >> wow. >> so that is really the challenge. >> let me pursue that for a moment. might there be 10 or 20 or 50 on a given day that would show up on this terror threat matrix? >> that is absolutely possible, and some of the range from statements that have not yet been corroborated. whereas others are much more confirmed threats against u.s. interests. >> one more question here, terror tuesday's, related to
president obama -- what does that mean? >> this is when the president gets his weekly briefing from his senior counter-terrorism officials about the terrorism threat, and perhaps about some actions that the administration will be adopted to take care of those. >> our guest is mitchell reiss, and he is the president of washington college in chester town, maryland. he is also the author of "negotiating with evil: when to talk to terrorist." sit tight, we will be back on the other side. "this is america." >> "this is america" is made possible by the national education association, the nation's largest advocate for children and public education. the american federation of teachers, a union of professionals.
poongsan corporation, forging a higher global standard. andthe rotondaro family trust. the ctc foundation. afo communications. and the american life tv network. >> when the united states went into iraq in 2003, 2004, they appointed a viceroy, a person to lead what was going on there. jerry brimmer. and he made four decisions, big decisions, right away. can you run down those decisions, and what was the aftermath of those decisions?
>> well, the decisions had to do with disbanding the army, alkaline -- outlawing the baath party. it would have the effect of putting hundreds of thousands of young iraqis on the street without any means of support. what he did essentially was unite the men with guns with the men with ideas. and it sets into an insurgency that grew over the following two or three years and provided a real challenge to u.s. forces there. >> so the baath party people were out, the police were out, the army was out. there was some kind of nationalization of industries or something like that? >> again, trying to get rid of the state-run industries to make it more proficient. >> and no provincial government, right? >> that was a big controversy. at the time, we were supposed to be handing it over more quickly to the iraqis. there was ever to a government
that did not have much authority. >> so with this insurgency operating, what is the death and thus it -- what is the definition of an insurgency? >> good question. again, people have different definitions of the. i think in the case of iraq, it was forces opposed to the government taking up arms and using violence. and that is certainly what we saw there, primarily by the sunni tribes. also, the chaos in iraq provided the opportunity for al qaeda to move in. so you had this cancer in the midst of iraqi society, al qaeda in iraq, that was moving across the country given the chaos. >> and something kind of amazing happened in anbar province, right? and there were a few key players involved. colonel mcfarlane, lieutenant- colonel dean, and abdul satar.
how did all those people come together thinking that we have ?n the table you're buook >> we have the finest military in the world, and is led by the finest officers. what you had there by this time, it was 2006, was officers who were taking their second third tour of iraq. so they had a little bit more understanding of the locals, local knowledge, the tribes, all those things worked. you had a few of them, colonel mcfarlane and lt. colonel dean, who were actually reaching out to see if it was possible to persuade any of the sunni tried to stop supporting al qaeda, or at least to stop being neutral and to join with the american forces against al qaeda. this was a real moment in iraq body or you had the first inklings that this might be possible, and abdul satar was
the leader of a minor tried. disreputable, by most accounts. he was a highway robber. that is how he made his living. yet, he had the courage, and he also had the vision to see that lining up with al qaeda was not going to bring stability or justice to iraqi society, and he is the one who shifted. >> and it was very bloody in that shift. people were killed and murdered and assassinated. but in the background, or in the foreground, the surge was taking place. at some point, petraeus was involved. general ray odierno was involved. this idea of talking with terrorists, talking with the enemy, can pay off, huh, and obviously did, because it turned the war. >> that is right. in the case of anbar, we were talking to people that had american blood on their hands. the idea was that that was then and this is now, and we had to a
knowledge that it wanted to provide any stability and save american lives and get out of iraq, leaving behind a fairly stable government, is that we had to do something. so again, you had the courage of these young officers over there. and then after that, you had the surge. you had a battle plan that was able to leverage the sunni tried slipping over to our side. and it was all very close, but it did take hold, and it eventually provided some stability. >> so you have roamed around the world. you have talked to hundreds and hundreds of people on all sides of this question of when do you talk to terrorists. when do you? what is the bottom line? how do you make that decision? as i am asking that question, how was thinking about president obama, then barack obama, senator, in the 2008 election,
when they said, would you talk to the enemy, and he said he would talk to the enemy without preconditions are preparations. what is the bottom line? when you talk to them? >> first of all, to be clear, sometimes you do not. sometimes there are terrorist groups who have objectives that are so apocalyptic that there is absolutely no point. >> what would be an example? >> al qaeda would be a very good example. it is hard to imagine any american administration sitting down with al qaeda. but there are other groups that may have more limited or localized grievances that may possibly be addressed, short of having to kill or capture all of them. which is militarily very difficult. it is very expensive to do that. and it is operationally infeasible in some cases. again, with some of these cribs, you're looking the whole time to get indicators of whether or not they're willing to trim some of their objectives, whether they have an interest in talking to you. and that means that you may have
to sit down and probe them. you may have to sit down and see if they are willing to curtail some of their more, you know, larger objectives. >> is that this business of back channels, kind of having these preliminary, preparatory talks? >> exactly right. in almost all these cases, what happens is that a low-level official, usually an intelligence officer, could be a military officer or could be a third-party not related to the government, goes and meets with these individuals. >> kind of off the record, in a way, at the beginning? >> there is a denial on both sides. >> fascinating. >> but the terrorist groups are also taking risks here. and it could be that the individual that is making his overture to the american side are to the government is opposed by many of his comrades. >> what came into my mind as you just said that was the basque folks in spain and the initial contacts that deniability
factor, so you can explore, yet to deny. >> and son do this because it is so controversial to have a government the down and talk with people who have blood on their hands. had to be very careful to make sure that this is genuine. there is a genuine interest on the part of the terrorist group and ending the conflict. >> so preparation is important. the objectives have to be clear. i gather that timing is involved in this, as well. and some kind of mutual interest would have to be implied. >> that is right. this also means that you're not going to win at the negotiating table what you cannot defend on the battlefield. >> they that again. >> you cannot win at the negotiating table what you cannot defend on the battlefield. what this means is that you have to keep on hearing these groups while you are negotiating. you have to either be winning or you have to remove all hope that the terrorist group can win. otherwise, you have no leverage. and they will keep on fighting,
because they feel that with one more bomb, one more terrorist attack, they can force you to withdraw, and then they can receive all the benefits. >> and that comes into play with al qaeda trying to get packages on planes coming to the united states or people lighting their shoes on fire or -- what is david letterman called it, the underworld bomber, those kind of people. so they keep trying. >> exactly. >> because they think that one more time, the economic success. >> that is right. al qaeda has been clear in their goals. they want us to remove ourselves from the foreign bases we have across the middle east. and they wanted to remove all our support for our friends and allies in the region. that is simply not going to happen. >> you were involved as an envoy from the united states with the rank of ambassador in these peace talks with northern ireland. what was the goal of the british government? what was the goal of the ira
that caused all this carnage over such a long time span? >> the goal of the ira was initially to drive the british out of northern ireland. and again, to get back to the earlier point, it to the bridge almost two decades to burst with the leadership of the ira that there were not going to leave northern ireland. it could be that the british were never going to defeat the ira, but the ira also saw that there were never going to defeat the british. that and then started the revolution in their thinking that perhaps there could be some type of political solution. >> i think as somebody who is irish on both sides, i have always thought that 3000 people killed and 3700 people killed and 30,000 wounded, it is beyond the pale of poetry to call it the troubles. why did anybody ever come up with that kind of terminology? >> it is an irish euphemism, perhaps. in the book, i scale of what those numbers would mean in american society.
i believe you're talking about 600,000 dead and over two million wounded. >> 0, lord. >> you can imagine what that would do to our society to have that type of tragedy. >> make a point in this talking with the terrorists, negotiating with evil, that was key in the northern ireland thing is they found a partner for peace. >> exactly right. >> and that was? >> that was gerry adams. this is one of the larger lessons. they said you need to find an individual who has credibility with his comrades. you need to have an individual who also has the imagination to realize that there's another path away from violence. >> and he was that thing? >> he was a political leader at that time. and to have the charisma and leadership skills to bring his group with him, that is a very unusual skills that. he is a remarkable individual for having that. >> so we have got iraq and anbar
province, success. we have northern ireland, success. you give an example in the book of luxury want a, a failure. this talking with terrorists -- you give an example in the book up sri lanka, failure. >> of the tamil tigers. >> and in spain with the basque terrorist group. it continues. >> no gerry adams. >> i do not want to romanticize gerry adams, because he is responsible for an awful lot of the death and destruction across northern ireland. but at a certain point in his life, he decided that he wanted to go in a different direction, and he was able to bring the group with him. that is what makes them such an unusual figure. you have to find somebody like that, or else the negotiation will not pay off. >> let's take some present-day examples. you have to get al qaeda off the table. >> mm-hmm. >> do you say do not even try with israel and palestine?
>> i look in the book in the case of israel and hamas, and israel has refused to talk. although it is a little bit more complicated than that. they do pass messages back and forth with each other. but the israelis are looking all the time to see if there is any indication that hamas is going to retreat from its maximalist goal of having one palestine under their leadership. basically, no israel. until that day, the israelis, i think justifiably, are reluctant to talk to hamas. >> so that will not happen. how about north korea? >> north korea, i spent four years talking to the north koreans about their nuclear weapons program. i think they have made a decision that they want to be a nuclear weapons state. and i personally cannot see any way that we can talk them out of it. >> so let's shift to afghanistan and the taliban. >> exactly. >> any opening there? there might be some stuff going
on behind the scenes. >> exactly, there's a lot of stuff going on behind the scenes, and that is actually one of the problems. you do not have a single channel. you do not have a single diplomatic framework, like you did with northern ireland. what is happening is you have a number of governments that are giving mixed messages to the taliban. >> you are those government? >> well, the pakistanis, the afghans, the americans, the uae, the turks -- there is a variety of people that are putting out overtures. and is confusing. one of the lessons from the book is that these terrorist groups did not have a deep bench. they're not the most sophisticated actors in the world. generally, they are young men that have been very isolated, indoctrinated from a very early age. and having so many divert people involved in this is really confusing. but you need to create a single channel and to coordinate the message you want to get across to them. we're not doing that yet. we also do not have the intelligence assets, the insight that i think we needed to the
taliban. there was an embarrassing incident a couple months ago we thought we found the number two person in the taliban, who wanted to talk, thought there might be room for negotiation and compromise with the taliban. turns out that he was a pakistani convenience store owner. we only found this out after passing a large sum of money to him. again, it is a very difficult to do this. you have to proceed carefully, methodically, and intelligence has to be right. >> he mentioned the guy who ran the 7-11 over there. it is kind of like the guy that we put all our faith in about iraq before going in there. >> yes. again, we have got to be very careful. there are very high stakes. these are literally life-and- death decisions. >> indeed, indeed. is karzai an ally? because he has talked about talking with the taliban as well. >> exactly. he has called them "our brothers." which again, is a demoralizing.
>> if you're an american soldier. >> and in charge of going up and capturing and killing these guys. president karzai is a complicated figure. he is out for president karzai. and we will see what happens. >> when you step back and take all of your experience, state department, negotiator, on a voice, ambassador, the many, many people that you have talked with, negotiating with evil, went to talk to terrorists, what is the biggest lesson that you have learn for yourself? and how you take what you have learned on the day-to-day basis running a college, i guess? >> well, there are a few lessons. first of all, if you do not talk to terrorist groups, it is not cost-free. you pay a price. you may miss an opportunity to end the conflict and a save
lives but also not talking, there's a price to be paid. again, yet to be careful about how you do it. but i think that is one lesson. more generally, i think the idea is you just have to be patient. all of the locations where we have had success have taken many months, many years even, of painstaking, patient negotiation. politicians always operate on election cycles. the negotiations with these guys do not. so we have to recognize that is going to take a very long time, longer than any of us would want. and then of course, the end result is uncertain. but unless you try, you may never find an end to these conflicts. >> fascinating book, a " negotiating with evil: went to dr. terrorists." mitchell reiss, thank you so much. good to have you here. >> thank you. >> for online video of all "this is america" programs, visit our website, thisisamerica.net. "this is america" is made possible by --
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